Saturday, November 20, 2010

Imagine There's No Leadership

It seems that pressure from somewhere is rising for a showdown over the deficit, leading to a government shutdown similar to the one in 1995.

If memory serves, we didn't have tens of thousands of troops in combat in 1995.

Do these folks who insist that such a shutdown would be a good thing have any clue the game they're playing?

Man In Hole Continues To Dig Deeper

I noted the other day the comments by American Family Association's "Director of Issues Analysis" Bryan Fischer concerning the Congressional Medal of Honor given by Pres. Obama earlier this week. Not satisfied to insult the military, the civilian leadership, and women serving in uniform, Fischer went on his blog and amplified his comments.
Christianity is not a religion of pacifism. Remember that John the Baptist did not tell the soldiers who came to him to lay down their arms, even when they asked him directly, “what shall we do?” (Luke 3:14).

War is certainly a terrible thing, and should only be waged for the highest and most just of causes. But if the cause is just, then there is great honor in achieving military success, success which should be celebrated and rewarded.

The bottom line here is that the God of the Bible clearly honors those who show valor and gallantry in waging aggressive war in a just cause against the enemies of freedom, even while inflicting massive casualties in the process. What I’m saying is that it’s time we started imitating God’s example again.
I suppose it is an arguable point, whether or not the Christian faith is "pacifist". Some, typified by Stanley Hauerwas, argue that it is. Others do not. Using the examples Fischer has chosen from the Hebrew Scriptures, without any context, without any real amplification, without a consideration of the history of Israel within the larger framework of God's unfolding revelation to the world in the incarnation of Jesus Christ is what is known as proof-texting. I can go to all sorts of verses in the Bible and, citing them, insist that our faith supports pretty much anything.

Bottom line, we can have a debate about whether or not Christianity is "pacifist". What we cannot do, and should not do, is consider the words Fischer uses here as representing anything resembling Christian thought. Doubling down with bad arguments on insulting comments really doesn't work all that well.

Things I Still Don't Get

Remember when George W. Bush said "they hate us for our freedoms"? Well, we put our freedoms up front and put alleged terrorist Ahmed Ghaillani on trial in New York, and he was convicted on one of over 280 counts.

Many on the right think this proves that our court system is inadequate to handle the realities of terrorist trials.

For this one count, Ghaillani faces 20 years in prison. The Guantanamo Bay prisoners who sat before military commissions, combined, face shorter terms than does Ghaillani.

I fail to see this as proving anything other than the system works pretty well, and it's the military commissions, of questionable legal provenance anyway, are really warped.

Friday, November 19, 2010

If You Can't Win The Argument, Change The Topic

I was going to write a post pondering what a specifically Wesleyan approach to sexual ethics might look like. Then, I discovered, first, this marvelous post that attempts a first crack at the subject. Embedded in a comment was a link to this site, a link-heavy clearinghouse for anyone interested in going through a variety of topics.

This was all prompted by seeing this article from UMNS yesterday.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I thought I would take a moment to consider the following from the article:
The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, a United Methodist pastor from Wisconsin and a representative of Good News, an unofficial United Methodist evangelical caucus, said “the continued focus on sexuality issues” is a reflection of western culture rather than a theological imperative.

“What we need to focus on is becoming disciples of Jesus Christ and living that out in a variety of ways,” he added.
There are any number of things I could say about this. All I will say is that Good News understands they are losing, if not already lost, may of the debates and discussions on matters of human sexuality within the United Methodist Church. So, rather than revisit arguments they know they can't win, they want to insist that being sexual creatures as created by God has no theological implications.

So, they go from bad sexual ethics to bad doctrine of creation. Like that.

These folks are the ones who insist our doctrine and theologizing is bad.

Too funny.

Damned If You Do, Dead If You Don't

I will admit up front that some of the justification presented by American military authorities in this story is truly bizarre.
In another recent operation in the Zhari district, U.S. soldiers fired more than a dozen mine-clearing line charges in a day. Each one creates a clear path that is 100 yards long and wide enough for a truck. Anything that is in the way - trees, crops, huts - is demolished.

"Why do you have to blow up so many of our fields and homes?" a farmer from the Arghandab district asked a top NATO general at a recent community meeting.

Although military officials are apologetic in public, they maintain privately that the tactic has a benefit beyond the elimination of insurgent bombs. By making people travel to the district governor's office to submit a claim for damaged property, "in effect, you're connecting the government to the people," the senior officer said.(italics added)
The highlighted section is, to put it simple, really just stupid.

Why not be honest? The military is blowing up mine fields . . . so troops can conduct their operations without worrying about stepping on them or driving over them! Since many of these mine fields are sown in areas of intense agriculture, there is the added benefit of reducing the risk of civilian casualties, particularly if safe paths are marked out. Is it more than regrettable that civilian property is being destroyed in the process? Yes.

Last time I checked, war sucks. It means that stuff gets blown up.

So, to be clear, Glenn Greenwald tweets this crap, John Cole calls the whole thing "agitprop", even as the article itself not only outlines the introduction of heavier equipment, but also some of the bureaucratic infighting and just plain weird nonsense within the American military itself (and what the hell does it mean that Petraeus can "manage the optics" better than ousted Gen. Stanley McChrystal?).

Now, what if the military didn't clear paths through minefields? Of course, we should ask, whose minefields are they? Are they ones sown by the Taliban? By the American/coalition forces? They might even be minefields left over from the days of Soviet occupation. Anyway, let's assume the military didn't clear the minefields. They found some way to move around areas, costing a whole lot more money and time, and leaving the mines, which seem in some instances awfully close to human habitation. Civilians keep tripping the mines, dying or being severely maimed in the process. Then, of course, most of these same people who are complaining about the military blowing stuff up would be up in arms that we aren't doing more to protect the civilian population from the threat of mines.

So, we have a choice. We can go about doing war-related stuff, that sad to say includes blowing stuff up, including the homes of people who are, indeed, innocent and sadly in the line of fire. Or, we can play a game where war isn't destructive and costly, leave the mines in place, and face other consequences.

We aren't going to pull all our troops out of Afghanistan tomorrow, like the war there or not. In the meantime, pretending we can conduct wartime operations without some destruction is ridiculous. Admittedly, the kind of bogus stuff the military spokesman offered about connecting people with local governments is more than silly; it would be nice if these people treated us like adults.

Budget Fictions

With all the budget-cutting plans being released, I think it would be nice to consider some things that aren't "on the table".

We have been living in fairy-tale land for the past decade. After September 11, 2001, the United States has been, regardless of how one feels about the policy decisions, in a state of war. We are currently engaged on two fronts (please don't forget we have 50,000 troops in Iraq). Like every military operation since the end of the Second World War, however, we have conducted ourselves as if we are a nation at peace. The disconnect between our domestic policy and our actual commitments has become all the greater precisely because we find ourselves in the odd position, historically speaking, of fighting a war during a major economic downturn.

After the attacks of September 11, when it was clear there would be a military response, we had an opportunity to mobilize the American people behind a sensible approach. Instead, Pres. Bush decided, even as he sent troops to Afghanistan and started a mostly fraudulent PR campaign for an attack on Iraq, to spend the enormous political capital he received to push for even greater tax cutting measures than those that had passed in the pre-attack summer of 2001. It was quite amazing to listen to all the talk comparing what happened on that horrible day to Pearl Harbor, all the while not a single word was spoken about the sacrifices we might be called upon to give as a whole nation. Instead, even as the recession that resulted from the collapse of the tech bubble worsened due to the attacks, Pres. Bush urged us . . . to go to the Mall.

I think some history is important. Just before he was assassinated, Pres. Kennedy had been working hard to push through Congress a major tax cut. The plan stalled until after his assassination, when Pres. Johnson urged Congress to pass it, along with groundbreaking Civil Rights and Social welfare legislation as part of Kennedy's legacy. While all these measures were working their way through Congress, Johnson also was planning a major increase in our commitment to South Vietnam. In February of 1965, troops got off landing craft along the coast of South Vietnam. This initial commitment was only the beginning, and within a few years, the US had hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground, with the Navy and Air Force flying missions over North Vietnam.

By 1968, the situation, from an economic standpoint, became untenable. The loss of revenue from the tax cuts combined with the explosive commitment to the Vietnam conflict created an inflationary situation, as well as rumblings over the fiscal problem. Domestic politics being as volatile as they were, asking for a tax increase, or any other measure of fiscal responsibility, to help make up the difference was impossible.

In the four decades since then, we haven't gotten any better at dealing with reality. Our commitment to Afghanistan has gone on longer than our commitment to South Vietnam, at least on such a vast scale. All the while, we have pretended we could keep the home fires burning without any sacrifice. Lower taxes, particularly on the wealthiest, was far more important than making sure the military was funded. Republicans in office get huffy over the National Endowment for the Arts, whose budget could cover a couple aircraft carriers. Even the way Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld tried to hide the cost of the war - keeping it "off-budget" through a separate, emergency, contingency funding process - didn't work all that well (and does no one remember how the Iraqis were going to pay us back for invading their country? I didn't think so).

Since Korea, we have tried to pretend we are not a nation at war. We don't declare war anymore in Congress. At best, Congresses pass resolutions that permit the President to use the military to achieve certain general policy goals. Once we argue our way through those, we continue as before; for all the blather among so many about "Supporting the Troops", we here at home go about our lives as if nothing untoward were happening.

Events of the past decade should have awakened us not so much to the perils of trusting Republicans with the responsibility of governance (although, yeah, that, too) as given us a wake-up call. We are a nation at war. All those folks out there who insist this has been true for a very long time should also be talking about ponying up. We don't necessarily need the kind of mobilization involved on the homefront during the Second World War. At the very least, however, we need to be not talking about tax cuts and budgetary austerity while we have hundreds of thousands of soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen and pilots in harms way. We need to stop talking about fiscal restraint, or anything else, until we first and foremost make it clear that we are not living in any ordinary time. We have commitments that must be met, an obligation to provide the military with the proper tools to complete the tasks they've been assigned. Rather than peace-time budgeting, maybe we need to do our budgeting with at least one eye on the reality that we need to pay for stuff, lots of stuff, to finish this.

It might include partial domestic mobilization. It might include wage and price controls. It might include setting aside restrictions on how contracts are allocated. It might include, yes, confiscatory taxes, at least on some level. It might even include, since no one seems to want to use the "D" word, increasing recruitment targets, spending money not just to get more bodies in uniform, but keeping the ones we have.

All of this needs to be discussed. Not Bowles-Simpson or anything else. We need to start talking about the economy and federal spending without pretending we aren't at war. We need, in short, to get dope-slapped back to reality. I have few hopes this will happen, but it still what we need. We can have all sorts of serious, substantive discussions about everything from the tax code to the National Endowment of Humanities to rethinking our approach to defense policy and force structure, but in the meantime we need to wake up and realize we are a country at war. Support it or not, that is where we are.

As a professor of mine use to say, shit or get off the pot.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Strange Bedfellows

As Spencer Ackerman reports it, the Cato Institute agrees with me.

Part of me wonders if that doesn't make me catastrophically wrong.

I Think Jesus Would Approve

I have to admit that I considered a whole host of puns for the title of this post. Then, common sense overwhelmed me.

Joel Watts pointed it out.
Meet Annie Lobert — a former prostitute with a singular mission: saving Las Vegas hookers.

Lobert, and her faith-based mission — which she calls “Hookers for Jesus” — are the focus of “Hookers: Saved on the Strip,” a three-part series premiering Dec. 8 on Investigation Discovery.

“When I used to get arrested and the vice [cops] called me a ‘hooker,’ it really offended me,” Lobert told The Post. “So one day I was thinking, if I was reaching out to women and starting to go into casinos and saying, ‘I can help you change your life,’ and calling myself Annie, it would be a weird thing — ‘Annie Lobert’s Reach Out.’

“So I figured Hookers for Jesus. I believe in God, for one, and I was a hooker and now I go and fish for people [to save].”
I love it! Hookers for Jesus! You know, this is the kind of thing we need to celebrate. If we are taken aback by the phrase, all the better. Anything to shake people out of their complacency and bourgeois illusions is OK by me.

On Governor Perry's Thoughts

Texas Gov. Rick Perry said today that the United States needs to include a military option in our relations with Mexico. This broaches a topic I have been pondering. Mexico is in a de facto state of civil war, pitting the federal government and various state and local law enforcement against various border-city drug gangs. Despite ramping up violence, it seems, to all intents and purposes, that the drug cartels are winning.

The United States is currently obsessed with a small band of loosely affiliated organizations in far away countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines, all the while our neighbor to the south poses an increasing threat to our homes, and our lives. This is not to suggest that we need to invade Mexico. It is to suggest, rather, that we need to start thinking clearly about what constitutes the most vital and immediate threats to our interests.

American relations with Mexico have not been pleasant for our southern neighbor. Waging aggressive war against them in the late-1840's, we annexed roughly half their territory after defeating them. During and after the 1911 Revolution, bands of guerrillas, led by Emilio Zapata, were causing enough of a fuss to induce then-Pres. Woodrow Wilson to send troops south of the border. They were only removed once American involvement in the First World War was looming and Wilson determined that the Commander-in-Chief of the forces in Mexico, Gen. John Pershing, would lead the American Expeditionary Force in Europe.

We are the consumer of Mexico's bumper crop of drugs. We are their market. Yet, we do comparatively little to break the cycle of drug dependence. Punitive approaches to drug possession and use are a dismal failure.

Then, of course, there is NAFTA. We should be discussing setting aside provisions that allow for the free flow fo goods and material across the border in order to assist in slowing the free-flow of drugs from Mexico. At the same time, we need to start talking about "immigration reform" within the context of Mexico's on-going war. Rather than seeing the flow of human beings north simply as economic refugees, we need to consider them within the context of humanitarian need, refugees from a country torn by war, a war for which we bare a large measure of responsibility. Justice and compassion should dictate our policy, rather than economic and ethnic and cultural fears.

Again, I am far from suggesting we militarize the border, or consider sending troops to Mexico, even if such help is requested, which I do not foresee happening. Rather, we need to reconsider our national priorities, be cognizant of those threats that are more immediate and pressing, and start talking about everything from trade to immigration policy within the new reality that is Mexico, once again proving its own adage correct: So far from God, so close to the United States.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Moments Of Clarity

Not to belittle the title phrase, which refers to that "Aha!" moment in the life of an alcoholic when she realizes that her life is out of control and something needs to be done, but I did, indeed, have such a revelation reading this yesterday. I read Somerby's Daily Howler pretty much every day. Somerby's obsession with news coverage of education issues sometimes ventures in to territory so unfamiliar that I feel lost in the weeds. His basic assumptions, however, I find refreshing, even bracing. Those are, first, that the mainstream national press - I think this should be very clearly stated - in the persons of those journalists on certain elite beats at our national newspapers and on cable and network television news so often bungle and dumb down our discourse - for whatever reason or reasons - that the cumulative effect, over time, has been disastrous for all of us. I don't necessarily buy his every stated claim, including his now shop-worn one that the press gave the White House to George W. Bush. All the same, his more basic premise, that our public discourse, including the information we need from those sources upon which we rely most for information to make choices in our public life has degenerated to a point that our discourse is, by and large, unintelligible, is, I think, sound.

More recently, he has hammered MSNBC hosts Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow. His criticisms of Olbermann's evident misogyny toward candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, for example, on view pretty much nightly during the 2008 primary campaign (and after) was more than frustrating. Other television personalities, like Tucker Carlson and Chris Matthews, expressed similarly woman-hating tropes toward Mrs. Clinton and were quite rightly taken to task for them. Olbermann, however, received far too much of a pass. Except from Somerby.

More recently, both Olbermann and Maddow have been criticized for what he very often terms their "clowning". By this, he means their many and varied attempts to get laughs from information, often misrepresented by the hosts. Quite often this takes the form of disparaging, insulting attacks on those whose political views are vastly different than theirs. My own viewing of both these personalities has led me to the conclusion that, by and large, he is correct in his criticisms. I know this is shocking; we liberals are supposed to support "the only two liberals on TV", right? Well, first, I wonder just how "liberal" either one is. Second, while it was nice, back years ago during the waning days of George W. Bush, to hear Olbermann pontificate about this or that member of the Administration who should resign, it became too much over time.

Last week, Rachel Maddow sat down with Jon Stewart for an interview that took up the entire show. In yesterday's commentary on the interview, Somerby highlighted some parts of the interview that got cut. What got cut is surprising, and made me stop and really think.
STEWART: Now, that to me doesn’t seem like, “You may be technically correct.” I would be surprised if, you know, Barack Obama then wouldn’t fall under that rubric. He’s, he’s—extraordinary rendition still goes on. Or, you know, there are things that are going on at Bagram Air Force Base. You know, things are happening in the world that under that same definitions— Is it as clear-cut maybe as “Yeah, yeah, water-boarding? Sure, I did that! Happy to do it again.” Maybe not. But you know, Franklin Delano Roosevelt interned 120,000 Japanese-Americans. Is he a war criminal? If you say he’s a war criminal, is that kind of an incendiary thing and kind of a conversation ender? So I view it as something that is done for emotional impact, something that should be discussed, but discussed in a way that takes into context other presidents, what war really is, others that have been accused of war crimes, what they are.

Is George Bush Saddam Hussein? Saddam Hussein’s a war criminal, he’s got rape rooms. Now I know that Bush had the Lincoln Bedroom and some other rooms, but I don’t think he had rape rooms. Do you know what I mean?
What made me stop and think? Why, he's right. I have mused quite often that I dreamed of major figures from the Bush Administration going on trial in The Hague for war crimes. Yet, all the policies the Bush Administration carried through, with the possible exception of torture, continue under Pres. Obama. Worse, in some way, is the fact that his election, at least in part, was about ending those abuses of power. One of his first acts as President was a pledge to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. That stain has yet to be wiped away. Indeed, Attorney General Eric Holder has decided that criminal trials for detainees cannot go forward because of complaints from New York politicians; that moving detainees from Cuba to prisons in the US cannot move forward because of complaints from politicians, including here in Illinois, who are terrified of having these folks in SuperMax facilities on US soil. This kind of political cowardice is inexcusable.

Intellectual honesty compels me to accept some things that, until now, I hadn't really wanted to see. First, if Bush is guilty of war crimes for certain acts that clearly violate standards of conduct set down in international law, then Pres. Obama is too. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, yet I think it is, to quote Lenin, a scrap of paper and no more.

Yet, Stewart's point is greater than that. His satirical take on our news and public discourse is, in fact, a plea to dial it down a notch or two. We can disagree without, as he puts it, being tribal. We all seem to have lost any sense of commonality, of common purpose, of being Americans together, trying to figure it out as we go as best we can. Instead, each side sees its partisan and ideological opponents not as those differing in means, but fundamentally opposed to certain core values that are, for lack of a better phrase, essentially American.

This is not to get misty eyed over the possibility of political opponents sitting down and hammering out working compromises on important policy matters. Rather it is to admit the ways I have contributed to the poisonous atmosphere of so much of our talk about our public life and do a mea culpa for that.

Conspicuous Gallantry Not Enough For Some

I . . . uh . . . just . . . Screw it. There are times that adjectives fail.
Bryan Fischer, the "Director of Issues Analysis" for the conservative Christian group the American Family Association, was unhappy yesterday that President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to a soldier for saving lives. This, Fischer wrote on his blog, shows that the Medal of Honor has been "feminized" because "we now award it only for preventing casualties, not for inflicting them."
Just for the record, Sgt. Giunta won the Congressional Medal of Honor because he went back, again and again, under a hail of gunfire from insurgents, to make sure all the members of his unit were able to make it. Not just once. Again, and again, and again. That's what this doofus calls "feminized". Which, I should note, said epithet insults the thousands of women soldiers in harm's way in Afghanistan and Iraq, women who have served honorably, bravely, and well, in conditions that include not only the usual threats from combat, but sexual harassment from other troops as well as harassment from locals who might find American women exotic.

I would salute Sgt. Giunta no matter who gave him the award because the young man deserves the thanks and admiration of all Americans. Whether or not you support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this man exemplifies the highest ideals of military service in combat.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Deficit Reduction, The Defense Budget, And Actual Thought

Let's get some stuff out of the way. Before we get around grandstanding about the size of the budget for the Department of Defense, it might be a nice idea to think about some things. First, we have troops in harms way on two major fronts, Iraq and Afghanistan (the 50,000 person "residual force" in Iraq is still in harm's way, folks, never forget that). We also have troops facing combat or potential combat in Yemen, perhaps the Philippines, and God knows where else. Supporting them, regardless of how one feels about the particular missions in question, should be paramount. As it stands, at least as one considers the DoD budget requests available to the public, Secretary Gates is attempting to do just that.

Rather than slashing $100 billion from the DoD budget, willy-nilly, we need to get our troops home and out of harm's way as quickly as possible. Then, we need an honest debate, a serious debate, on the affordability of Empire, on the actual cost, in simple dollars-and-cents, of continuing global hegemony. We need to be willing to entertain the thought, heresy for far too long, that we just can no longer afford to be the world's only superpower. It hasn't been sustainable, at least domestically, without ramping up the fear factor toward the Muslim world (a pretty large chuck of the planet, including many of our fellow US citizens).

In other words, snarky comments like Glenn Greenwald's tweet concerning this article from The Hill, really don't mean all that much. It isn't enough to shout, "The military budget is too big!" We need to look at the ideology behind that big budget, and ask some fundamental questions about what kind of nation we wish to be. Anyone who has been paying attention to public affairs in our recent past knows that, despite all the noise, not one penny is going to be cut from the Defense Department budget, particularly with a Republican majority in the House (and the House is where real spending originates).

First, we need to ask if NSC 68 (which I misidentified in a post a while back as NSC 17, for some reason; so, I admit my error, so sorry) is still guiding our budget and spending priorities. If so, it needs to be retracted. If not, then we need to wonder why, in practice, it seems to be still operative. We need to make clear, if we wish to remain the world's only superpower, that we are willing to pay that cost. Since not a single Administration of either party has made a case for the sacrifices necessary to remain hegemonic, it seems to me the only real bipartisan agreement we have is that the American people really want no part of being the world's policeman.

All the same, we need to have this debate all the while making sure our young men and women in uniform are kept safe until they can be removed from the line of fire. This requires we spend money, spend quite a bit of it, and spend it wisely. That, Secretary Gates is arguing, is what he has been trying to do. Once out of combat zones, then we can get down to the tough choices of deciding not only what kind of military we want, but what its role should be, reflecting whatever priorities we might prefer to present to the world. We need to start that debate now, without jeopardizing our folks in the field. We owe them that, regardless of how we feel about the justice or rightness of the policy they are carrying out.

For Edwin Drood - A Lesson In Reality (UPDATE)

On Taxes
Right-wing commenter Edwin Drood insists that there has never been "credible" critiques of various right-wing media types. Rather than sit and point out the obvious, I am going to assume the role of credible critic. I am going to take on a right-wing talking point that, despite mountains of evidence showing it is not just wrong, but really, really wrong, refuses to die. Unlike zombies, that at least die when you shoot them in the head, this particular bit of nonsense continues on as if there were simply no refutations out there.

The lie: Tax cuts increase revenue.

Since the days of Ronald Reagan's supply-side marginal tax-rate reductions, this lie has been part of our official discourse. Tax cuts increase revenue. You can hear it out there, read it out there, whether on blogs or serious economic journals. Tax cuts increase revenue.

It took me, oh, about a minute to find this site.
The supply-side theory that tax-cut proponents often espouse was demonstrated by the Laffer curve, named for economist Arthur B. Laffer. The curve suggests that a higher tax rate can generate just as much revenue as a lower rate. But most economists are not Laffer-curve purists. Instead, while they may believe in the power of tax cuts to create an economic boost, they don't say that growth is enough to completely make up for lost revenue. For example, N. Gregory Mankiw, former chair of the current President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, calculated that the growth spurred by capital gains tax cuts pays for about half of lost revenue over a number of years and that payroll tax cuts generate enough growth to pay for about 17 percent of what is lost.
There is a link embedded in this quote,which takes the curious clicker to a .pdf document co-authored by the aforementioned Mankiw, which yields, through a whole lot of technical lingo, the unsurprising conclusion that tax cuts are not, in fact, self-financing. The author of the FactCheck piece does note that corporate tax cuts may be an exception, because of capital mobility built in to our international corporate legal framework.

OK, Edwin? Is that credible?

On Rush Limbaugh And Right-Wing Media
More to the point of your basic criticism, I will never forget the moment I understood Limbaugh's role. It was the run-up to the Republican primaries before the 1996 Presidential election. Pat Buchanan was preparing to make another run, and many of Rush's listeners were all for it. Limbaugh was having none of it. Repeatedly, in show after show, he came out against Buchanan, with whom any casual listener would have assumed he had far more in common that the quiet Prairie Republican Bob Dole. Then, it dawned on me. Limbaugh was nothing more than a party hack. Period.

His more recent statements that have upset so many liberals - his desire to see Obama fail being one pointed to with so much huffing and puffing - make that perfectly clear. Like Mitch McConnell's statement that his goal is to limit Obama to a single Presidential term, it is nothing more or less than stating the obvious. I was neither surprised nor offended by either comment. Quite the contrary.

More to the point, I have been led very recently to begin thinking very differently about these folks on the right, thanks to an article in no less a pillar of the intellectual left, The New York Review of Books. I don't agree with everything the author, David Bromwich, has to say. On the other hand, I was forced to stop and set aside the usual discussions concerning right-wing talkers and consider them as serious actors on the political stage. Which, in many ways, brings us back to one of my main points - the insouciance toward factual accuracy that is endemic on the right is not a bug. It's a feature.

So, Edwin, is any of this "credible" for you, or do you take view, oft-expressed by others on the right, that liberals, being liars, mean the exact opposite of what they say?

UPDATE: Just to satisfy Edwin's insistence that no one "credible" has provided an instance of Rush Limbaugh uttering a falsehood, here is Rush on Pres. Obama's recent trip across south Asia on his way to the G20 meeting in South Korea:
In two days from now, he’ll be in India at $200 million a day.
The trip did not cost $2 billion. Not even close. He was not accompanied by an entourage of thousands, or 34 warships (as Glenn Beck claimed). This is the kind of thing that can be checked easily enough, yet it enters the consciousness of some folks, come out the mouths of others, and becomes "real" regardless of facts.

Look, I have no problem talking about stuff like taxes, or the larger political import of talk radio, or even the success or failure of Pres. Obama's trip across Asia. These are legitimate and worthy topics. I will not sit around and get in to a discussion over crap like this. This is why too many discussions with conservatives end up dying on the vine. I'm not against talking about policy or issues on the merits. I am against talking about stuff that isn't real as if it is. It's really that simple.

Courtney Love Didn't Kill Curt Kobain Or Rock And Roll

I have been listening - as in deeply immersed in - rock music for the vast bulk of my life. Not content to sit and tap my foot and sing along with the lyrics of songs I have heard a thousand times, I am always on the lookout for new things, hearing something I haven't heard before (a Discipline I gleaned from Robert Fripp, and please note the irony there), as well as re-evaluating old and firmly held prejudices. Just yesterday, I learned that 70's veteran shock-rock superstar Alice Cooper is not only alive and kicking; he has released over the past decade and more some seriously heavy, industrial records that are also heavily tinged with a heavy moral hand. His stage shows, including all the old gimmicks and tricks, seem to be better than ever, most likely a product of Alice being older, wiser, sober, and knowing exactly what he wants. It is nice the nostalgia circuit hasn't captured him yet.

I am of the firm opinion that this is among the great moments to be a fan of all kinds of music. While there are still those a bit younger than I am who mourn the end of the free-download moment, with, first MySpace allowing young bands, good and bad, the opportunity to provide fans with music, and iTunes providing relatively cheap and easy access to all sorts of music, we have arrived at a moment when, for this music fan, the opportunities are there to hear anything you want.

So, I suppose because I am enthusiastic about the possibilities in our current moment - separate from the usual discussions over styles, genres, corporate control, popularity versus authenticity and the like - I can be forgiven for finding so little goodness in this.
Hole. What can you say about Hole? Time was I would have said I liked Hole. That I was a Hole fan. After all, I like nineties alt rock, female singers and counter-intuitive stances, so what’s not to like about saying you like Hole. Not long ago, however, I actually listened to Celebrity Skin and was hit by the realization that I didn’t even recognize many of the songs. I’d never owned a Hole album! I wasn’t a Hole fan at all. I was a Hole poseur. I knew their MTV hits, but none of the deeper cuts even off their hit albums. The whole thing was a fraud, an illusion. How did this happen?
She admits upfront that she was only familiar with Hole's "MTV hits" and wonders "how did this happen"? The rest of the article spirals out of control, with the topic of authenticity, the old chestnut of Kurt Cobain and Billy Corgan writing Hole's best albums, and even the "death" of rock and roll being offered up as if these were settled topics.

The simple answer, for me at any rate, as to why hip-hop beat out rock in the 1990's is two-fold. Those who bought the whole "alt rock" scene in the early 90's realized pretty quickly they were being conned (when Hootie and the Blowfish is offered up as alternative, you know something's wrong); more important, there was more creative energy in rap and hip-hop in the 1990's. Starting with NWA's Straight Outta Compton, then moving through, in particular, Dr. Dre's nurturing of up and coming rap artists (in particular Snoop Dogg, and later, Eminem), we had some seriously creative work being done. While Diddy did, indeed, exploit Biggy Smalls death, the reason he could do so is Biggy's work was, in many ways, flawless.

Rock, happy to say, did lay dormant for most the decade, at least on radio and at the major labels, who invested much more in hip-hop. Yet, as the rise of Napster at the end of the decade showed, there were audiences out there. The Sturm und Drang of the 1990's was largely the last gasp of a corporate model that Napster helped show was no longer tenable. The audiences for music are, by and large, far more fragmented despite relatively robust sales for music by, say, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and others. This fragmentation is not a sign of an elderly music no longer relevant; rather, it is a sign that we no longer need be guided by corporate sponsorship and radio airplay to decide what "good music" is. It takes a bit more effort than familiarizing oneself with the "MTV hits" (as if that phrase means anything anymore), and claiming that the Beastie Boys taught white people how to rap but the reward is worth the effort.

Hole didn't kill rock and roll, is far more symptomatic of the corporate disease that forced so much good music off the official radar than of larger and largely false questions of authenticity, and in retrospect, can be enjoyed if for no other reason than good, campy fun fifteen years later. If the author of this particular article would pay attention to more than hits, and the Beastie Boys (which do have some interesting music out there, to be sure), she might discover that her entire lament is rooted in the reality that she allowed herself to be conned.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Overhearing Private Conversations

This is the second post brought on by my re-reading of Chomsky's Necessary Illusions. More than the first, I think it highly relevant to approaches to how we talk about politics, and why it is so broken.

When I first started perusing the internet, about four and a half years ago, one of the things I discovered was a lively, vigorous critique of our mainstream public discourse. For years, I'd been frustrated by the nonsensical "liberal media" crap; I had also become disillusioned, however, with its mirror-opposite, oft-heard in the further reaches of the left, that the real bias is conservative. This Hobson's choice of narratives just didn't make sense of the reality for me. Discovering Media Matters for America, as well as some of the better liberal bloggers offered a refreshing alternative to this all-too-sterile false dichotomy.

Over time, however, I have become increasingly frustrated with this alternative as well. For one thing, spending a great deal of capital and man-hours chronicling the factual errors in, say, a Rush Limbaugh radio program or Glenn Beck television show, while certainly rewarding to those who think being factually wrong is enough to condemn them and those like them. It hasn't however, dwindled their audience or market share. The fact that Limbaugh is completely apathetic toward facts; that Glenn Beck seems to enjoy skirting right up to the line of "public nervous breakdown" hasn't brought down either his ratings or the revenue FOXNews enjoys from advertisers. It such a catalog important? Sure. Is it practically effective? Obviously not.

More broadly, the liberal critique of our mainstream political discourse, mired in an on-going frustration with its shallowness, its callowness, its obsequiousness toward the corridors of power, errs because there is an implicit assumption that the discussion, either of politics or policy, is open to the public at large. It is not, and has not been. It is a conversation for elites, done by elites, with the assumptions and prejudices of the elite standing in full force behind it. If it is more shallow, more ridiculous perhaps, now than in recent memory, that perhaps says much about the intellectual status of our current crop of elites.

Take, for example, the most recent Beltway tempest, the President's deficit-reduction commission. Pres. Obama created it to recommend policy choices in the face of mounting public debt. Critics of the Obama Administration used operating deficits as a stick with which to beat the President during the recent campaign.

Yet, anyone who has paid any attention to our public life over the past three decades knows several things. First, no one in power in Washington really cares about deficits, in and for themselves. President Clinton managed to not only balance the budget, but budget surpluses his last two years in office, due in large measure to slightly higher marginal tax rates and a bustling economy brought on by the rise of the high-tech sector in the middle part of the 1990's. No one cared all that much about the surpluses, either.

Second, the American public doesn't care about the deficit. Some do, to be sure, and it will be easy enough to find all sorts of voters fulminating on the necessity of our federal government to operate within its mean. For the most part, though, our current need is greater attention to the unemployment situation, its stagnant nature. Even the most dyed-in-the-wool conservative economist understands that in order to address unemployment, the feds need to spend money. That means, of course, running an operating deficit. Addressing the deficit at this point in time is not only politically unpopular, but would be economically disastrous.

Unless, of course, one considers who the real stakeholders are. The banks, the bond market, those corporations who wish to shed their reliance on bad investment decisions from earlier in the decade without paying a legal or financial price for doing so are the ones who want the federal government to stop spending money. They want the deficit addressed now so that, first of all, tax increases can be off the table (no one wants a tax increase during a business slump). Second, and more important, the real issue is dismantling much of the social safety net, a project begun tentatively during the Reagan years, and gathering steam since. With our current economic situation so dire, and huge deficits looming in to the near future, ridding the federal government of the cost of supporting the needy seems like a great opportunity, not to be missed.

In other words, none of this is about the deficit. The recession is an excuse, a debate point to be used over and over to insist that we can no longer afford these once venerable and even necessary programs. It has happened in Greece, and is already happening in England, where the national health service and public assistance was both far more advanced and is even now being trimmed by the Conservative-Liberal alliance in power.

It would be nice to believe that our pundits and commentators serve the public at large. They do not. Our public discourse is ridiculous not because it is liberal, or conservative or factually inaccurate. It is ridiculous because, at its heart, it isn't public. When we read a column by David Broder or Charles Krauthammer or even Jonah Goldberg or E. J. Dionne, we are not reading something for the public at large. We are, rather, overhearing, at a distance to be sure, the private conversation within elite circles over the narrow range of policy options available to us.

Spending time pointing out how wrong Rush Limbaugh is wastes our time and energy precisely because that is what those in positions of power want us to do with our time and energy. Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Michael Savage are all useful idiots, tools to be used by the elite to keep us either cheering on their nonsense, or pointing out how wrong/morally vacuous/politically nihilistic they are.

I'm not sure what the solution to this problem - if it even is a problem - might be. I do know that saying, yet again, that some pundit said something stupid/wrong/evil not only does no good, it takes our eye off the real issue. These folks get paid a lot of money to be stupid/wrong/evil. We should probably be paying more attention to their employers than to them.

On Chomsky's Illusions

This is the first of at least a couple, perhaps more, posts prompted by re-reading Noam Chomsky's Necessary Illusions. They are solely to clarify, for myself, how I feel about his writings, and are probably both boring and irrelevant to anyone else.

I wish I could remember where I read it, years ago, that someone said many on the left go through a "Chomsky phase". His writings are a bracing alternative, can even be enlightening, or perhaps connect various things that seemed nascent prior to reading him. All the same, the person who spoke of this "phase" also noted two things: most grow out of it; Chomsky himself has become, over the years, more caustic, even sarcastic in noting how little impact his own strenuous efforts have had in shaping public discourse, making his writing increasingly tough going, even for those who continue to read him.

A pioneer of scientific linguistics, whose fundamental theories have been paradigmatic for that particular discipline, Chomsky has had, for over forty years, a side career as a critic of American foreign and domestic policy. Part of what makes discovering Chomsky so enlightening, I think, is the uniqueness of his perspective, combined with the way she uses publicly available information to shape a narrative of American power that uses the same sources as our conventional discourse, but arrives at completely different conclusions.

Unlike many critics dating to the Vietnam era, Chomsky does not come from a traditional leftist perspective. He describes himself as an anarchist, a left-libertarian (variously), and seems close to the thinking of syndicalists like Georges Sorel (although Sorel was an advocate and theorist of violence, and Chomsky most definitely is not). He not only traces the effect of class and corporate power as it shapes our state institutions; he also is critically opposed to state power as such. In a revealing passage in Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, he discusses the way elites during the founding generation of America squelched popular democracy even in the years prior to the Constitution, during the Confederation period. He sees Shays Rebellion, a popular uprising in Massachusetts that was the prime reason for ditching the Articles of Confederation and creating a new Constitution, as the last real gasp of the "Spirit of 1776"; certainly the rebels in that instance so saw themselves.

Which also reveals one of the issues I have with Chomsky. His basic criticism of the American system seems to be that our rhetoric of openness and democracy belies a history of elite control, from the founding period until today, that is, relatively speaking, unbroken. While there is truth in this, I have to ask: When have states behaved otherwise?

This question, again and again, crops up as I read Necessary Illusions. He criticizes our conventional discussion regarding the Vietnam War, our refusal to take responsibility for the devastation that we rained down, for the continuing cost of that war (the book derived from lectures he gave over CBC radio in 1989, so it is a bit dated in its information) in lives lost to munitions left behind and the effects of chemical warfare on the population. Yet, when has any state admitted without coercion that it is guilty of horrid crimes against another state and its people during wartime? When has any state voluntarily accepted the responsibility for repaying to the victims of its aggression some small measure of recompense? This is not to argue the morality of the issue; that, sixteen years after the US withdrew from Vietnam we still had not provided Hanoi with information regarding the placement of landmines, placements that still brought a heavy toll in lost limbs and lives and livelihoods because they tended to be sowed in areas ripe for agriculture is, as he says, unconscionable. All the same, lectures on what may or may not be morally correct really are irrelevant in foreign policy. Which, again, is not to argue this is right or wrong, only to say it is a fundamental reality.

Which, of course, brings up another question. Obviously, not only for domestic consumption but also for the moral satisfaction of policy-makers responsible for it, we in the United States view our actions through a prism, not of self-interest, but rather of a certain moral purity (does anyone besides me remember laughing out loud on September 11, 2001, when former Secretary of State Alexander Haig said that the attacks on New York and Washington signaled America's "loss of innocence"?). While there is very little one can do beyond discarding such nonsense, there has been a long tradition in the United States of seeing ourselves as morally superior, of our actions being above the bare minimum of "national interest", of that silly notion of "American exceptionalism" that pervades not only our sense of our history, but even our domestic and foreign policy.

In a sense then, Chomsky as moral scold can be bracing - or infuriating, depending on who is reading him - precisely because he seems to be saying, over and over again, "OK, folks, if we're so moral, why do we do this, this, this, and this, which, by and standard are clearly immoral?" To which, of course, the answer is either silence or rejection of the messenger. By framing a consideration of our foreign policy rooted in a national self-interest defined by and for the benefit of the major contributors to our state apparatus (not just in monetary terms, but also in personnel), many pieces that seem incongruous do fall in to place. Chomsky sees these as morally vicious, and too much of our discussion about foreign policy nonsensical or even vacuous because it pretends otherwise. While certainly taking his narrative seriously, up to and including much of his moral opprobrium directed at our direct and indirect responsibility for crimes against the peace and humanity around the world, we should also note that one of his fundamental assumptions - that the state itself is an immoral institution, bent on violence - needs to be questioned as well. Any thoughtful consideration of the history of Great Powers should include the reality that Great Powers do horrible things to maintain their power. Whether that is right or wrong, I feel myself incompetent to judge. That it has and does and will continue to happen is a reality that must be accepted.

Chomsky's many volumes are an important contribution to any larger discussion of American foreign policy. His views should always be tempered, however, with a consideration of his particular vantage point, as well as putting important questions to his insistence that our moral failings around the world are somehow unique. Empires are not known for their charity or even-handedness. This point also needs to be kept in mind.

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